In 2010, Anna Ternovszky did what no pregnant woman in the world had done before: she challenged Hungary at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). In a landmark case, she asserted that the decisions we make in childbirth are part of our fundamental human rights to private and family life, and that the countries we live in must make sure systems and structures are in place to enable us to make them.
Ternovszky wanted to give birth at home with obstetrician-turned-midwife Dr Ágnes Geréb, who had cared for her in her previous pregnancy. But with the legal position on homebirth in Hungary ambiguous, and Geréb already facing criminal charges for her work, Ternovszky felt unable to make an important and personal decision without a change in the law. She won her case, and her determination to insist that her state protect her from the institutionalised violence in some Hungarian birthing facilities set a legal precedent, which started a global human-rights-in-childbirth movement and advanced the understanding and protection of women’s rights in Europe.
Geréb had inspired Ternovszky to expect and demand basic human dignity. Geréb struck the match on this now-blazing global campaign by enacting her feminism practically, giving women the chance to make their own decisions about their bodies. Her practice of respectful maternity care has encouraged others to take their countries to task at the ECHR for failing to protect birthing women from rights violations, and has influenced the work of midwives, doctors and campaigners around the world.
And yet, there is little to celebrate for Geréb herself, who this week lost her final appeal in a case that predates the Ternovszky judgment. After years of persecution within the Hungarian legal system (including maximum security imprisonment and shackling during biased trials), she is likely to start a two-year prison sentence next week. Her story is a medieval witch-hunt made over only slightly for the 21st century. And, like those witches of centuries gone by (who were often local midwives themselves), the characterisation of Geréb as a wrongdoer is designed to protect a threatened patriarchy and broken system from the powerful spectre of female strength.
Geréb has attracted controversy throughout her career, receiving the first suspension of her medical license in 1978 for allowing women to have their partners with them during birth
Geréb has attracted controversy throughout her career, receiving the first suspension of her medical license in 1978 for allowing women to have their partners with them during birth – predating English obstetrician professor Wendy Savage’s 1985 suspension for similarly daring to be a voice for women’s choice. Geréb’s woman-focused practice and willingness to support individuals who wanted to birth at home as well as in hospital led to a number of further suspensions, searches of her home and arrests.
Prior to the Ternovszky case, midwifery was not a recognised profession in Hungary and the legal status of homebirth was ambiguous. Midwives were unable to obtain the permits necessary to attend homebirths and, in the event of a rare tragic outcome, automatically faced criminal prosecution rather than professional investigation, unlike their hospital counterparts. Only three babies were lost in the 3,500 homebirths she attended (the Hungarian-wide perinatal mortality rate was five deaths per 1,000 live births in 2010), yet Geréb faced investigation and an eventual charge of manslaughter that her many supporters believe was unfair and unfounded.
Now that she prepares for prison, or to beg for presidential clemency, I want to thank Ágnes Geréb for starting a thread, woven from autonomy and determination, that runs directly from her care for homebirthers to current campaigns to help women desperately requesting caesarean sections. It links those subjected to forced enemas and pubic shaving in Croatia with others slapped during labour in Tanzania and women unable to access any maternity care at all. And, importantly, it offers them hope and momentum as top-down initiatives, legal interventions and grassroots actions continue to lead to positive change.
Much of this work would not exist without Geréb's struggle and sacrifice. As I remember all she has done, I wonder if the power that she has given us comes from the simple placing of a cold flannel on a labouring woman’s forehead, or a strong hand on her shaking one? Perhaps, thanks to Geréb, the human-rights-in-childbirth movement is build unshakeably on that very human thing that we call love.
You can write to the Hungarian President to ask him help Ágnes Geréb avoid imprisonment here.